ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Ukrainian Crisis

Geopolitical manoeuvres by world powers have further aggravated the Ukrainian crisis.

More than two decades have gone by since the end of the Cold War, but the ongoing events in Ukraine (and, some would say, in Syria as well) would however suggest that great-power geopolitics is alive and well. How else could one read the decision by Russian forces to seize military control in Ukraine’s autonomous province of Crimea on 27 February in the aftermath of the uprising in the country that ousted its elected president Viktor Yanukovych? The Russian actions clearly breach not only the sovereignty of its neighbour, but also the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by Russia, the US and the UK. The signatories had agreed that external powers will not use any coercion – military or economic – against Ukraine for their interests or work against its territorial integrity andindependence. But are the Russians alone to blame for this turn of events?

A closer look at the uprising in Ukraine over the past three months would reveal that the Western powers had a major role to play in pushing Yanukovych out following violent protests that killed about a hundred people in the period. It is therefore not enough to single out Russia’s present indiscretion. The crisis itself was triggered by the Yanukovych government’s decision to opt out of a proposed European Union (EU) Association Agreement in November 2013. The outpouring of protestors on the streets of Kiev reflected the yearning for a closer integration with the rest of Europe in western Ukraine. Yanukovych and his party (Party of Regions) have been far more popular and strong in the industrialised eastern parts of Ukraine which have had a more entwined economic relationship with the erstwhile Soviet Union, and these ties have endured with Russia. Yanukovych had been at the receiving end of similar civil disobedience in 2004 when his election to the presidency was nullified following protests in what was called the “Orange Revolution”. Then the events had triggered similar “colour-coded protests” elsewhere in the former Soviet republics, which were revealed to have been supported and financed by US-affiliated organisations.

This time around, a coalition of forces was ranged against Yanukovych. There were those from the middle and upper middle classes who resented the influence of the eastern oligarchy that had propelled Yanukovych to power and who sought closeness with the EU. One key demand from the protestors was the restoration of amendments made to the Constitution in 2004 (and controversially rescinded in 2010) that had drastically cut down powers of the presidency vis-à-vis the elected parliament.

A significant part of the protests was also led by ultranationalists who had long envisioned Ukraine’s destiny to be part of Europe rather than Slavic Eurasia. It was the ultranationalists who propelled the first move of the post-Yanukovych political dispensation to squash a law passed in 2012 that recognised Russian (widely spoken in the Ukraine) as an official regional language. And there were also the representatives of the equally oligarchic Ukrainian opposition, figures from the Fatherland Party, whose leader Yulia Tymoshenko was arrested in 2011 on charges of corruption by Yanukovych’s government, allegedly as “political payback”.

As protests raged on in the capital, it soon became clear that both the EU and the US, and, of course, the Russians were keenly guiding different forces involved in the uprising in order tofurther their respective geopolitical goals. The EU preferred a reduction of Yanukovych’s powers and a transitional government leading up to elections, helping to push a coalition that would be more open to an economic agreement with the EU. The US sought to use the protests to marginalise Russian influence and as a ploy to checkmate the Russians who had successfully prevented the Americans from launching strikes against Syriarecently. Russia was keen on retaining Ukraine as a part of its immediate zone of influence, as it has tried to prevent Ukraine from integrating into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. For years, the Putin presidency has used a policy of carrot and stick – carrots such as the proposed buying of Ukraine’s government bonds valued at $15 billion and a cut in the price of natural gas exports to Ukraine in December 2013 and sticks such as the use of protectionism against some Ukrainian products following the initialling of the EU agreement in 2012 – to maintain this influence. Russia put its weight behind Yanukovych, who fled to the country following his ouster.

An initial agreement on 21 February negotiated by EU representatives between the government and the opposition promised, among other things, a restoration of the Constitution between 2004 and 2010, early presidential elections and aninquiry investigating the role of government organisations in the violent attacks against protestors. But events soon overtook this agreement as Yanukovych was impeached by a special session of parliament on 22 February. Soon, rather than forming a national unity government which included Yanukovych supporters, the opposition installed a new government led predominantly by the Fatherland Party and comprising a number of ultranationalists. What propelled the coup, one does not know, but it is clear that there has been US influence in directing it in order to keep any prospective Russian ally out of the new arrangement.

The ensuing protests in eastern Ukraine against the new regime, the Russian de facto intervention in Crimea, and the subsequent decision by the Crimean Parliament to replace its prime minister and to hold a referendum on the status of Crimea in May 2014 seem to be playing out a similar script to the earlier Kiev protests, except that these moves have turned the tables and are directed against the new regime. Ukraine now seems inevitably headed towards a much broader civil conflict – not just between the west and the east, but also between the various ethnic denominations within Crimea itself – with possibly dangerous consequences.

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